The Blacklist: Season 3, Episode 1 – “The Troll Farmer”

Season one of the espionage soap The Blacklist was fun, but season two was tired. Can season three recapture the excitement?

Two years ago, NBC introduced The Blacklist, a high-concept celebrity vehicle based on an unbelievable premise. James Spader plays public enemy number one Raymond “Red” Reddington, who turned himself in to the FBI and offers to parse out information on his “blacklist” of super-talented criminals that consistently elude capture. The only condition he placed on his cooperation was to be paired with newly minted profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boon). Both their performances and the exciting and absurd plots made the first season a wonderful roller coaster ride.

At the beginning of the third year, the series was in desperate need of a reboot. The car chases, shoot-outs, and fights that punctuate each episode, no matter how well done, are just the show’s bells and whistles. For two years, the series was based on two primary conflicts: Keen’s relationship with Reddington and her relationship with ex-husband Tom (Ryan Eggold). The writers and directors did a good job of adding twists and revelations into the story, but midway through the second season, it became stale. Just like Taylor Swift needs to sing about something other than her jerky ex-boyfriends, The Blacklist needed to introduce new material.

The first episode of season three, “The Troll Farmer”, offers hope that they did just that. It opens with Keen and Reddington on the run, trying to find a place to hide. They give the slip to the police in a very absurd way and end up in a basement under a pub. Reddington tells Keen that given the current manhunt, they’ll never be able to evade capture or exit the city, but in a few weeks the pressure should ease off. This results in the pair remaining underground for a week, and the segment ends with Reddington rationalizing that the time will allow him to catch up on his subscription to Bassmasters. This beginning was a basic continuation of what worked in seasons one and two. High suspense and James Spader pontificating in an arrogantly charming way.

Like the opening segment, the closing segment continues to rely on the strong points of the first season. The key to any good thriller is to provide a plot twist that is both shocking and logical, a difficult balance. It is easy to err on either side of the equation, in which the resolution is either so obvious that there’s no surprise, or is so out of the blue and contrived that it makes no sense. Like many of The Blacklist’s best episodes, “The Troll Farmer” ends with a great twist.

Writers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath introduce two promising plot lines that indicate the first major changes in the series. The first is Keen’s new role, which points to the idea that season three’s narrative arc will focus on how Agent Keen handles being a fugitive. The last season ended with Keen, on the heels of being framed for the murder of a US Senator, killing corrupt Attorney General Tom Connolly (Reed Birney). The show also seems to be setting up the season as a coming-of-age story for Keen. Reddington voice-overs that Keen’s mother was uniquely clever and inventive, suggesting that through the season, Keen will discover the same qualities in herself and become Reddington’s equal.

There are also several new conflicts introduced between the show’s secondary characters. One of the most promising is between Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) and Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marno). Special Agent Ressler initially served as the series’ protagonist, as the FBI agent who tried and failed to capture Reddington, while Navabi served as a kind of independent contractor — an Iranian man recruited by Mossad. Both characters share similar qualities: they’re both physically attractive, easily frustrated by politics and nuance, and have difficulty retreating or reversing course in their jobs, their personal relationships, and their investigations. The writers generate conflict between the two by putting Navadi in a precarious position. Unfortunately, to do so, they have to ignore her bad-ass history, but the payoff was worth the inconsistency in her characterization, and initiates what looks to be a fascinating subplot throughout the season.

One rule of television is that every series, whether dramatic or comic, should have an interesting villain, because a protagonist is only as good as their antagonist. M*A*S*H’s Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce (Alan Alda) needed both Major Franklin Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). Breaking Bad was kept fresh through seven seasons to its gallery of compelling rogues, including Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the neurotic, nihilistic and corporate Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), the crazed psychopathic Mexican drug lord kingpin Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), and the creepy white supremacist drug dealer, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons). Built into The Blacklist are episodic villains, but these characters were dispatched too quickly to serve as true antagonists to Reddington. The season premiere finally introduces a character for that purpose.

A high-ranking member of the cabal, Mr. Solomon (Edi Gathegi) is introduced holding a baby he’s about to kidnap; the baby turns out to be Dembe Zuma’s (Hisham Tawfiq) — Reddington’s bodyguard — granddaughter. The episode includes two confrontations: between Solomon and US National Clandestine Service Director Peter Kotsiopulos (David Strathairn) and between Solomon and Dembe. In both cases, Gathegi plays the scene as Reddington’s equal: a character who is exponentially more in control of the situation that anyone else. Gathegi, who had a six-episode run on House, plays Soloman with a kind of menacing calm; his performance promises to be more than a match for Spader’s.

All television shows have a built-in obsolescence. At some point, all possible plot twists and personality foibles are exposed and addressed. Last season, there were many indications that The Blacklist was running on fumes. “The Troll Farmer” offers hope that the tank is finally refilled.

RATING 8 / 10